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Educating Singers in a Fast-Changing World

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Describing all the skills that go into making a successful classical singer reminds me of the story of the blind men and the elephant: each man approaches the animal from a different perspective and each comes away with opposing views on the nature of the beast. One starts with the tail (“it’s all about the voice”), another the trunk (“acting comes first, all else follows”), another the side (“personality, looks, technique”). You get the idea.

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Of course, they’re all wrong and all right. Compelling artistry contains all those elements, or enough of those elements in a combination that brings the music to life. The way in which all those elements are valued, combined, and sought after is an ever-changing process in the professional world: therefore the work we do with singers must keep evolving to adjust to the changes in the larger music world.

It’s fascinating to read singers’ biographies from past generations to see how they put the puzzle together. There were top-rank singers who made long careers with just a handful of roles, sometimes all in one language. It was not uncommon to specialize in a period or operatic repertory (bel canto, verismo¸ etc.). Training often began with daily voice lessons and daily sessions with a pianist/coach; often this intensely personal, one-on-one instruction continued well into the singer’s career. Frequently a relationship was built with a major opera house, which became an artistic and professional home for the artist, where they would perform most if not all of their repertoire, season after season.

Almost none of these factors describe the professional world that young singers are entering today, like it or not. With rare exceptions, singers begin their educations in schools, not in private study, where they are one of many students receiving weekly, not daily, voice lessons. They are trained through a curriculum that the school developed for all the singers in its program. There they encounter a range of repertoire that begins in the Baroque and stretches to include works written by current composers, some of whom may be sitting next to them in theory class. They cannot concentrate only on one sliver of the repertoire, or on one language, although their teachers may recognize that their gifts lie more in one area than another. At Juilliard, their training also includes acting and movement. Some of their classroom time is devoted to learning about the business of music and the realities of the current performing world. Their course load also includes a liberal arts component, to help round out their understanding of the cultures that have produced the works they sing, and to help them think more clearly and more fully about the past and present.

The breadth of repertoire that voice students encounter is also a reflection of the diversity they will grapple with in their later careers. It is commonplace now for the soprano who sings Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata to tackle next a Handel role, followed by a recent work in English, followed by orchestra concerts and recitals. Singers at the top of the profession are constantly “re-inventing” themselves with new repertoire, specially chosen projects, and creative ways to generate excitement and attention. The old cliché of the musically handicapped singer who relies on a vocal coach to teach him his notes is largely history—this range of repertoire can’t be ingested by rote repetition.

There is also the more controversial question of whether the singer’s physical appearance matches the roles she sings. Anyone familiar with the grueling demands of singing Puccini’s Madama Butterfly realizes that she cannot be sung by a woman who actually looks like a teenager. Ditto for many other operatic characters: we simply have to suspend our disbelief and agree to enter into a theatrical realm with its own rules. So here’s the question, and it’s a fair one: how far are we willing to go in adjusting our expectations and are these expectations more visual or more aural? If a young singer entering the profession truly needs to look like the characters he or she portrays as well as satisfy the composer’s vocal requirements, this puts extra demands on the singer, and on the process of preparing that singer to enter the professional marketplace. Without taking a hard-and-fast position on this subject, we have to acknowledge this trend.

All of these shifts in emphasis are additions to their studies; none are subtractions. They all relate to what is expected of an emerging artist in the current world of classical singing. Audiences, administrators, and managers are looking for the “total” artist, who combines these elements—voice, technique, acting, movement—in a seamless whole. The day is past in which it was sufficient to deliver the vocal goods without investing your own personality and point of view.

Happily, Juilliard’s Vocal Arts Department is well equipped to help them manage these challenges, since so many of our teachers, coaches, and administrators are firmly in the center of the professional world. Stephen Wadsworth, the incoming director of Opera Studies for the Juilliard Opera Center, enjoys an international reputation as a director and teacher. In fact, he will join us fresh from the run of his new production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met. The list of Vocal Arts faculty with longstanding and current ties to the Met and New York City Opera is a long one: in this sense, we are really part of the Lincoln Center campus, just as our colleagues in the instrumental disciplines enjoy long careers with the New York Philharmonic and the Met orchestra.

This year, we’ve made some steps in collaboration with the Lindemann Young Artists Development Program at the Met. The gifted Chinese bass Shen Yang, who recently won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, is studying simultaneously both in J.O.C. and in the Lindemann program. Several of our guest faculty at Juilliard come to us from the Met, and in our February production of The Magic Flute, Lindemann young artist Jordan Bisch will sing the role of Sarastro. All of this shared activity would have been hard to imagine even a few years ago, reflecting our awareness that a more flexible approach best serves singers in today’s environment.

I’m pleased to be in charge of Vocal Arts at Juilliard during this stimulating period, when many of the assumptions that held true for singers are in flux. In my own alternation between working at Juilliard and collaborating with established singers, I don’t find that I get the bends traveling from one sphere to another. My work in school and my work in the concert hall feel like two points on a continuum. Standing in the renovated lobby of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, with its new transparency and openness, looking at our Lincoln Center neighbors, we can see that we are indeed part of a larger whole.

 

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